How much is too much?

In this month’s “Records To Die For” at Stereophile, I was struck by a few things. One, almost no new music pops up in there. Why is that? Two, sound quality rarely takes a back seat to performance quality. I’m not saying ‘never’, I’m saying ‘rarely’ — when there’s a mismatch, it’s usually worthy of a mention — but why should it? Shouldn’t performance always take precedence? Just sayin’.

Unknown-1_1But as all that was kicking around, I noticed some LPs recommended by Art Dudley and Michael Fremer, the Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas by J.S. Bach as performed by Johanna Martzy. The two veteran critics waxed poetic about these three discs, and Dudley was prompted to write that “these are the discs he’d rush back into a burning house to save” or something. My wife is a huge fan of baroque composer, so I figured, with that kind of recommendation they’d be worth checking out.

Which took me to The Electronic Recording Company. There’s a lot to explore there, so I’ll leave that to you. Anyway, what struck me was the price-per-disk: £300 each. That, my friends, is a pricey LP.

And then … I started to think. Occasionally, that happens. Sometimes spontaneously. But here’s what popped into mind.

It was the First Law of IT: “garbage in, garbage out”. It’s trite, true, and almost tautological. Translated here — your system will never sound it’s best if it’s only ever fed crap. There’s also and Audio Corollary: your system will only ever sound as good as the material fed into it.

Which caused a hamster or two to start moving “up there” and I wondered — how much is too much for source material?

Honestly, I don’t know. In an era where new albums are routinely sliced and diced and sold off at $1 per cut, the idea of a $450 album is laughable, shocking, and more than a little outrageous.

But is it?

Sure, I can get the latest from Beyonce or Kanye West for $1. It’ll probably sound just fine on my iPhone with my upgraded $99 urBeats in-ear headphones. But what if I have a pair of $500 Sennheiser HD650? Or, if I went all crazy and got something costing over $1000, like a pair of Audeze headphones? Or my $2,000 hi-fi system? Or my $75,000 hi-fi system? At what point does investing over $1000 in three LPs make sense?

Honestly? I don’t know.

But there is a couple of things to point out. “We” — as in, music consumers — routinely under-pay for music. No, we do. No one expects to pay a plumber or an electrician $1 for anything. Sure, they’re tradesmen, but no one expects to pay a painter or a sculptor $1 for anything, either. No, it really is just musicians that we treat like toilet paper and pretend as if they should be grateful we even bothered to air their work at all.

Coming at this another way is the analog tape movement. I’ve expressed shock and dismay at the pricing of these albums in the past ($250+ per is pretty routine), for pretty much the same reasons I’ve outlined above, with the additional dismay around having to procure a functioning antique player in order to bother. This is something I’ve had to experience myself before I “got it” — and boy-howdy, I do. Analog tape is like nothing else out there in audio’s high-end right now … but I digress.

It’s very possible that the medium is interfering here, that with these astronomically priced albums what we’re paying for mainly is the privilege of scarcity. Maybe that’s so. I tend to think that, especially since time seems to have marched on, analog tape and high-quality vinyl are apparently quite difficult to manage and produce. That will drive cost, most assuredly, and the economics of “small batch manufacture” enter here, too.

Putting aside the issue of “how much an artist should be paid” (it’s a good argument, and one worth having, but that’s one for another day), I was left with the lingering notion that many audiophiles are routinely underestimating their musical investments. Some folks, I know, invest many thousands of dollars in huge musical collections, seeking out the very best performances on the very best mediums. For them, the balance is on the music not on the playback. But I submit that this is not what the hobby is these days. Not with audio shows championing $500k loudspeakers. No, something altogether different is happening there.

Look, I’m not saying a $450 LP is “right” for everyone. But given the investment many have made in their playback systems, $450 is nothing. Or close to it. Which, for me, is about as far from my original sense of shock and awe at this kind of pricing as I’ve managed to come. Perhaps I’m getting jaded.

Anyway, love to hear your thoughts. Is music too expensive? Not expensive enough? Where’s the line? Feel free to jump in on the Comments section, below.